Showing posts with label Utah. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Utah. Show all posts

Wednesday, June 30, 2021

Oil, uranium motivated Trump to slash Bears Ears; litigation, land use questions now sit on Biden's desk

President Biden is likely to undo the Trump Administration's dramatic reduction of protected land in southern Utah, including the Bears Ears National Monument.  If he does, the restoration will end litigation over the permissibility of rescission under the Antiquities Act and extinguish ambitions of the natural resource extraction industry.

Traveling in Utah in recent weeks (drought, torts), I spent time crossing the south of the state from the Navajo Nation in the east to the Dixie National Forest in the west.  In the Escalante region in between, a whopping 1.88 million acres of south-central Utah is set aside as protected land under the Antiquities Act of 1906, an enactment of the Teddy Roosevelt Administration and genesis of the American park system, as the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument (GSENM).

A famous feature of GSENM is Grosvenor Arch, named for Gilbert H. Grosvenor,
the first full-time editor of National Geographic.


GSENM (U.S. BLM)
Immediately east of GSENM, the narrow Glen Canyon National Recreation Area tracks the Colorado River from Canyonlands National Park to Lake Powell.  And just east of there, couched within an L of the north-south Glen Canyon and the east-west Navajo Nation is the 1.35 million acres that President Obama designated, or proclaimed, in December 2016, as Bears Ears National Monument.

You might have heard of Bears Ears, because it was at the heart of the controversy ignited when President Trump attempted to substantially rescind the Obama proclamation and vastly reduce the size of public lands in southern Utah.  By proclamation in December 2017, President Trump shrank the Bears Ears designation from 1.35 million acres to just under 230,000 acres, and he cut GSENM almost in half, from 1.88 million acres to just about one million acres (L.A. Times graphics).

Bears Ears NM (U.S. BLM) (red border)
The power of a President to undo a designation under the Antiquities Act is an open legal question.  In the 1970s, Congress undid a perceived overreach by the Carter Administration in protecting land in Alaska.  But the executive power to roll back designations is untested, and Trump's rollbacks were, like so many things about the Trump Administration, unprecedented.  Lawsuits followed from environmentalists and Native American tribes.

"Bears Ears" refers specifically to two buttes, and they are a universally and immediately recognizable landmark in southern Utah.  On a clear day, they can be seen from both Monument Valley Tribal Park in Arizona and Mesa Verde National Park in Colorado.  Driving the Trail of the Ancients from the Valley of the Gods, up the Moki Dugway from Mexican Hat, Utah, I recognized the Bears Ears right away when they popped up over the scrubby horizon.  They truly do give the unmistakable impression of first sighting a bear in the wilderness, ears poking up over shrubbery.

My first sighting of Bears Ears buttes
Bears Ears buttes in a National Park Service photograph
Bears Ears National Monument embraces the Trail of the Ancients and a vast range of sites that are archaeologically invaluable and culturally precious to multiple tribes, including the Navajo, Ute, Pueblo, Hopi, and Zuni.  Historic cliff dwellings, sacred burial grounds, petroglyphs, and pictographs abound in the region.  Headlong development plans and rampant looting of indigenous artifacts were key motivators of pleas for federal protection.  The buttes are at the center of it all geographically and symbolically, but it's the surrounding land that really matters.

Petroglyphs such as these at Capitol Reef National Park date between 300 and 1300.
So that was the frame in which I understood the controversy over Bears Ears before I went to Utah: a classic problem of conservationism versus economic development, collectivist versus objectivist land use, both sides with fair claims to the greater good.  The heuristic is a cost-benefit analysis, but different decision-makers variably assess intangibles such as environment, culture, and history.  And the whole calculation is awkwardly tinged with the shame of America's imperial legacy vis-à-vis indigenous peoples.

That framing is accurate—but incomplete.

There is an angle that I was missing, and it became apparent on the ground, literally.  My back-country drive was the tip-off.  The Moki Dugway is a spectacular unpaved mountain pass, not for the vertigo-inclined.  The pass was carved out by private enterprise specifically to transport uranium mined in Fry Canyon to a processing facility in Mexican Hat.  Bears Ears is not just about conventional land use.  It's about what lies beneath: coal, oil, natural gas, and uranium.  The Trump reductions to Bears Ears and GSENM were mapped specifically to kowtow to the extractive industries.

Moki Dugway

Panorama from the Moki Dugway, looking south toward Monument Valley

Valley of the Gods from the Moki Dugway
This is a FOIA story.  Extraction is rarely mentioned in news reports about Bears Ears.  But a media lawsuit under the Freedom of Information Act yielded some 5,000 pages of records from the Department of Interior that show, The New York Times headlined in 2018, that "oil was central."

Bears Ears proposed boundary revision,
attached to Hatch office email,
to "resolve all known mineral conflicts"

In March 2017, the office of Senator Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) transmitted to the Trump Interior Department maps of mineral deposits in the Bears Ears National Monument with email messages, such as, "Please see attached for a shapefile and pdf of a map depicting boundary change for the southeast portion of Bears Ears monument." As the Times reported, a map recommending monument reduction "was incorporated almost exactly into the much larger reductions President Trump announced in December, shrinking Bears Ears by 85 percent."

Publicly, Trump Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke downplayed the role of extraction in the decision-making, for example, once declaring, according to the Times, "We also have a pretty good idea of, certainly, the oil and gas potential—not much! .... So Bears Ears isn't really about oil and gas."

Meanwhile, the Times reported, "internal Interior Department emails and memos also show the central role that concerns over gaining access to coal reserves played in the decision by the Trump administration to shrink the size of the [GSENM] by about 47 percent ...."  According to the Times, "Mr. Zinke's staff developed a series of estimates on the value of coal that could potentially be mined from a section of Grand Staircase called the Kaiparowits plateau.  As a result of Mr. Trump's action, major parts of the area are no longer part of the national monument.

"'The Kaiparowits plateau, located within the monument, contains one of the largest coal deposits in the United States,' an Interior Department memo, issued in spring 2017, said.  About 11.36 billion tons are 'technologically recoverable,' it projected."

In contrast, the Times reported, 20,000 pages of Interior records accessed in the FOIA lawsuit "detail the yearslong effort during the Obama administration to create new monuments, including input from environmental groups, Indian tribes, state officials and members of Congress."

Another Hatch office email attachment:
USGS-mapped uranium deposits
in and around Bears Ears

Earlier, in January 2018, Times reporting based on public records obtained from the Utah Bureau of Land Management revealed the centrality of uranium extraction in public policy on Bears Ears.  As controversial uranium mining operations were set to resume near the Grand Canyon, the Times reported, and "even as Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke declared last month that 'there is no mine within Bears Ears,' there were more than 300 uranium mining claims inside the monument.

"The vast majority of those claims fall neatly outside the new boundaries of Bears Ears set by the administration. And ... about a third of the claims are linked to Energy Fuels, a Canadian uranium producer. Energy Fuels also owns the Grand Canyon mine, where groundwater has already flooded the main shaft.

"Energy Fuels, together with other mining groups, lobbied extensively for a reduction of Bears Ears, preparing maps that marked the areas it wanted removed from the monument and distributing them during a visit to the monument by Mr. Zinke in May."

Straight line of uranium "road scar" at Capitol Reef,
visible from upper left to lower right

Not just on the Moki Dugway, the legacy of uranium mining is evident on the landscape in southern Utah.  For example, in the stunning vista of Grand Overlook at Canyonlands National Park, some unusually straight lines in the earth stand out in contrast with the curving tracks along the hilly contours.  The straight lines, a ranger told me, are "road scars" from truck routes, transporting the yield of uranium mines before the national park was established in 1964. 

At Capitol Reef National Park, on the eastern edge of GSENM north of Glen Canyon, one can see the fence-wood-sealed holes of old uranium mines on hillsides and cliff faces, always tracking a pale yellow stratum in the rock.  According to a National Park Service signboard, "[t]he thin band of yellow-gray" is "a layer of ancient, river-deposited sandstone containing trace amounts of uranium....

"Exploration and milling of uranium was encouraged by the US Atomic Energy Commission in the 1950s during the Cold War.  Prospectors flocked to the Colorado Plateau.  Even protected National Park Service lands were opened to mining.  Despite strong opposition from park managers, companies were allowed to build roads, dig mines, and construct camps in previously undisturbed lands."

Fenced uranium mine openings in yellow stratum at Capitol Reef National Park

Part of NPS signboard at Capitol Reef National Park

I do not here want to ignore the public good that flows from natural resource extraction.  I drive a car and heat a home with fossil fuels.  The Hatch memos to the Interior Department said that state taxes and fees on natural resource extraction would be used to fund public schools, libraries, and infrastructure.  Extraction provides jobs and drives economic development, which betters social conditions.  And as the Capitol Reef signboard intimated, domestic uranium yield was, and still is, vital to the national defense and can be supportive, or in other hands disruptive, of global security.

I don't here subscribe mindlessly to collectivist dogma.  My complaint is against opacity and deception.  The electorate can calculate the public good only with a complete and accurate accounting of the variables.

Three federal lawsuits over the Bear Ears/GSENM reductions were consolidated in Hopi Tribe v. Trump, No. 1:17-cv-02590-TSC (D.D.C. filed Dec. 4, 2017) (Court Listener).  By executive order on Inauguration Day in January 2021, President Biden instructed the Interior Department to review the Trump proclamations on Bears Ears and GSENM, as well as a marine national monument off the New England seaboard.  In March, the court granted a stay in Hopi Tribe, waiting to see what the Biden Administration would do.

Earlier this month, the Interior Department delivered its report to the White House.  The report has not been made public, but media outlets, including the Times, reported that Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, member of the Laguna Pueblo and the nation's first Native American cabinet secretary, recommended restoration of the national monuments to their pre-Trump proportions.  In a joint status report filed with the Hopi Tribe court on June 3, the parties asked the court to extend the stay, pending the President's reaction to the report from Interior.

Your humble blogger at Cedar Break National Monument in the Dixie National Forest
 (All photos not otherwise attributed: by RJ Peltz-Steele, CC BY-NC-SA 4.0.)

Tuesday, June 29, 2021

'1,000 Places to Fall to Your Death,' Utah edition, means American tort law hasn't undermined pioneer spirit

I can't help but check out the tortscape when I travel.  As mentioned last week, I have been traveling recently in Utah.  The sights are breathtaking.  And as an indicator of the health of the American tort system, I am pleased to report, Utah has many places where one can fall to one's death.

If your foreign friends are like mine, then you too are tired of being teased about fencing at the Grand Canyon, supposedly erected by the National Park Service to protect itself from lawsuits.

It's nonsense, of course.  There are a very few railings and barriers installed at the most popular viewing areas at the Grand Canyon.  Given the often present throng, the limited installations are only sensible, to protect the canyon as well as the people.  Plenty of visitors still manage to fall and die.  And if anything about such deaths speaks powerfully to "the American way," it's the sovereign immunity that usually dispatches any subsequent lawsuits.

(In all seriousness, for a tragic and compelling problem in this vein, and an excellent case for torts profs to introduce the Federal Tort Claims Act, see the recent and pending claim against the National Park Service by the family of Esther Nakajjigo, a human rights activist and tourist who was decapitated by a swinging traffic control gate at Arches National Park in Utah in 2020.  Read more from Moab Sun News, NBC News, Fox13 Salt Lake City, and Yahoo News Australia.  The case is Michaud v. United States, No. 1:21-cv-01547-KLM (filed D. Colo. June 8, 2021) (Court Listener).)

Railings such as these represent a reasonable exercise of discretion by any global measure:
surrounding a viewing platform at Sipapu Bridge at Natural Bridges National Monument.



My friends' teasing persists because it capitalizes on two stereotypes of Americans: first, as camera-happy tourists who don't know how to handle themselves when voyaging giddily away from home on their precious ten days of unguaranteed vacation; and second, as lawsuit-addicted complainants eager to forsake personal responsibility for a pay day.  Corporate America's tort-deform messaging has saturated the globe.

I should know better.  But, I admit, my insecurities are allayed whenever I discover a new place one can fall to death amid the sublime splendor of an American natural wonder.  And I found many such places in Utah.  I'm thinking about writing a book in the vein of Patricia Schultz's 1,000 Places to See Before You Die.  Mine will be "1,000 Places to Fall to Your Death in America."  It's simultaneous travel literature and tort-reform opposition.

This is my favorite new candidate for the book: Kodachrome Basin State Park in Utah.  It's oddly appropriate because the park is in fact named after a corporation.  National Geographic featured the land in color photography in 1949 and, with permission of the Eastman Kodak company, named the area after the company's pioneering color film, which had been introduced in 1935 (and was discontinued in 2009).  The park is a worthwhile stop, or destination unto itself, on Utah's famed Scenic Byway 12, near Cannonville.

Kodachrome Basin boasts some 67 "sedimentary pipes," columns of rock rising from the basin floor.  According to park literature, the pipes are the result of erosion, but geologists are not sure whether historical earthquakes or ancient springs explain the erosion-resistant columns.  There are more than 14 miles of trails in the park from which one can see the pipes and take in the park's chromatic appeal.

I did one of the shorter hikes. The 1.5-mile Angel's Palace Trail rises 150 feet from the basin floor to afford views from Kodachrome to nearby Bryce Canyon.  Angel's Palace offers many short side tracks to scenic viewpoints, like this one:

Here's a 360-degree panoramic:
The trail drops off on both sides:
If you meander down this pathway, it narrows to a small rocky point, maybe 10 square inches of a rounded top of crumbly rock, where, I suppose, someone with a death wish could make a killer TikTok hopping on one foot.  I got only far enough along to take this photo:

In further furtherance of the pioneer spirit, there's one other unmitigated way to die in Utah, and that's in an agricultural encounter.  At the American West Heritage Center in Wellsville, Utah, I was surprised to see this sign:

In 1L Torts, I always include some coverage of sector-specific statutory liability limitations, usually adopted to protect domestic businesses especially from suit by out-of-state tourists.  In my first year as a legal writing instructor in the 1990s, colleagues and I used a problem involving the Colorado skier responsibility law.  Utah has one, too.  This was the first time, though, that I've learned of a sector-specific liability limitation in "agritourism."  Actually, this was the first time I ever heard of agritourism (also "agrotourism").

The cited section of the Utah Code indeed defines agritourism as "the travel or visit by the general public to a working farm, ranch, or other commercial agricultural, aquacultural, horticultural, or forestry operation for the enjoyment of, education about, or participation in the activities of the farm, ranch, or other commercial agricultural, aquacultural, horticultural, or forestry operation."

The statute doesn't depart radically from the negligence standard, but, like the sign says, affords service providers an assumption-of-risk defense when signs are posted.  The statute specifies risks inherent in agritourism:

a danger, hazard, or condition which is an integral part of an agricultural tourism activity and that cannot be eliminated by the exercise of reasonable care, including:
     (i) natural surface and subsurface conditions of land, vegetation, and water on the property;
     (ii) unpredictable behavior of domesticated or farm animals on the property; or
     (iii) reasonable dangers of structures or equipment ordinarily used where agricultural or horticultural crops are grown or farm animals or farmed fish are raised.

I didn't run into any of those problems.  I must be a pioneer at heart.

Me holding up a natural bridge on the Hickman Bridge Trail, Capitol Reef National Park
(All photos by RJ Peltz-Steele, CC BY-NC-SA 4.0.)

Friday, June 25, 2021

Drought grips western U.S., induces ag angst in Utah

Salt Lake City—I’ve been traveling in Utah, so have witnessed the drought gripping the West.  I’m no climate scientist, so I can’t say how far off normal conditions are.  Here is what I've seen and been told.

This was my first time in Salt Lake City (SLC), at least beyond the airport.  It’s a remarkable place.  Having visited the cedars of Lebanon and driven the Dead Sea highway in Jordan, I understand now why the Mormon pioneers of 1847 thought there was something divinely ordained about the cedar break at the Great Salt Lake.

Salt Lake City overlook from Desolation Trail in Millcreek Canyon
I've wanted to see the Great Salt Lake as long as I can remember, but especially since reading Terry Tempest Williams's natural history-classic Refuge in the 1990s.  The Great Salt Lake's salinity tops out at about 27%.  That's shy of the roughly 34% of the Dead Sea, but still enough to preclude any waterborne animal life bigger than a brine shrimp.

Great Salt Lake from Great Salt Lake State Park
 

Bison on Antelope Island in the Great Salt Lake; Salt Lake City in the distance
At the same time, from a contemporary, climate-wary perspective, one can’t help but look at SLC and think, “Maybe this shouldn’t be here” (a sentiment admittedly more apt with regard to desert cities to the west, such as Las Vegas).

Salt Lake City from atop the Utah Capitol Steps

I have seen warnings all around Utah not to park cars on dry grass, for fear of fire.  The rotatable Smoky-the-Bear fire danger signs are dialed up to “Extreme.”  Radio ads ask me to “slow the flow,” limiting my use of water.  Yesterday morning, June 24, it rained in SLC for the first time since May 23.  The local weather announcer gleefully reported 0.02” accumulation by 9:30 a.m. 

At Lake Powell, water levels are too low for the ferry to operate between Halls Crossing and Bullfrog.  Near Hite, Utah, in the Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, a dusty red campground sits eerily vacant astride a dry riverbed where the Colorado River falls shy of Lake Powell’s north end.

In wetter times, a waterfront campsite at the Glen Canyon National Recreation Area
 

Dry riverbed between the Colorado River (at left) and Lake Powell
A signboard with tips to “Play It Safe in the Water,” picturing jubilant boaters, gives the campground a “Planet of the Apes” feel of abandoned human infrastructure.  We often think about climate change in terms of rising sea levels, but the opposite happens, too.

"Play It Safe in the Water"
The chatty clerk at the Hollow Mountain convenience store in Hanksville told me with a pained face that she has never seen it so dry, and, she added, her memory goes back to 1964.  She didn’t strike me as much older than 60, so I’m assuming she’s been in Utah all her life.

Hollow Mountain, Hanksville
An innkeeper in Escalante was less concerned.  He said that the drought is affecting agriculture, and that might be a welcome wake-up call to abate the cultivation of water-intensive crops that should not have been planted where they are anyway.  “Culinary water” has not been affected, he said; the area provides ample water for human settlement and tourism.
Settlers planted orchards at what is today Capitol Reef National Park.
The place that most stoked my concern and compassion was the Navajo Nation on Utah’s southeastern border.  At a Navajo-family-run inn and café in Mexican Hat, just above the border, a server told me that the area hasn’t seen a torrential rain for 10 years.  She seemed to me maybe 19, so I wonder whether she remembers.

The San Juan Inn overlooks the San Juan River, which also feeds Lake Powell.
Meanwhile, the local economy is reeling, as it seems Navajo Parks and Recreation will not be reopening touristic sites, such as Monument Valley Tribal Park, for another summer.  It’s been hard, the young server told me.  But we’ve always survived here, she said of the Navajo, so we’ll adapt.  I found the sentiment rousing, but couldn’t decide if it was wise or naïve.

Anyway, her 84-year-old grandmother makes a mean salsa verde enchilada with a Navajo-chili-style filling.

Salsa verde enchilada at The Juan Cafe, Mexican Hat
(All photos by RJ Peltz-Steele, CC BY-NC-SA 4.0.)